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Home  » Learning Paths » Postmodern and Postcolonial Fiction. J. Coetzee's Foe
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Acciarino - Foe's Analysis
[author: Teresa Acciarino - postdate: 2007-10-01]

Coetzee's Foe is a review of the Defoe Robinson Crusoe - and it shows a lot of elements interconnected not only with his archetype. Coetzee puts into a new cycle a classical novel.

First of all the title "Foe" remands to the surname of Defoe; it is an inter-textual association that recalls to an other name.

This choice probably is connected to the concept of review of the classical novel.

Knowing the context the reader can consider an other aspect: Foe in the history is the author who will write the story thanks Susan Barton' letters. The protagonist, that provided the information to Foe, is worried about the result of the book that will be written: in other words, will it tell the truth as she has reported? This is one of the most important theme of the novel. The novelist shows what he knows, e does not condition the reader. This aspect is connected to the postmodernism: as a matter of fact the new technique of telling requires to make the reader free to understand with his mind. (the ideal reader is the one who is able to "intelligere") - the reader is more important that the author. In other words, he only can interpret what he reads according to his way to thinks, to see the world, his emotions, his life. Therefore Foe becomes an enemy for Susan - an opposition to his goal. The etymological meaning of the "word foe" is just enemy, opposition, adversary.

Susan is intelligent, ironic. She is worried about the way her history will be tell. She consult to write and publish the recount of her adventure; in other words she pretends to transmit some value - she wants Foe to make the protagonist immortal (not something that may be false or created by the mind of the author, not only the aspects of the dramatic adventure). The author draws the attention on the gap between the reality and what is narrated. Her love for the writing and language depends on the desire to left a memory; and all ways to express emotions (Friday uses other vehicles to interact).


The archetype has been transformed in terms of:

  1. story line (event of story has been reduced to the minimum and selected in space and time).
  2. language is simplified - According to the post-modern technique the novel "Foe" includes a multicultural language:  French words, songs. In other words the re-adaptation of the language is connected to the presence of a multicultural [and multi-age: adolescents] audience.

The archetype is full of details that the review loses. The scenery is essential, all becomes symbolic and the reader gains (buys) a most important role - imagination.


Both the novels present the identification between protagonist, narrator and speaking voice.

The different regards the way of thinking, and the sensibility of the two different protagonists. As a matter of fact in Coetzee's novel the protagonist is a woman (Susan), in the Defoe's one the protagonist is a man (Robinson Crusoe). Coetzee wants to transmit how a woman may react in comparison to man in difficult situations.

Therefore he decides to have a woman protagonist instead of the Crusoe of Defoe. In respect of man, that develops a linear thinking, woman develops a reticular way of thinking (multitasking, fragmentary). Therefore the way of perceiving the world is different. The woman prefers a relativistic interpretation (important theme of the postmodernism).

Further more Coetzee seems to identify himself in Susan's point of view - therefore he shows a female sensibility.


More over, differently from the Coetzee's novel, Defoe's Crusoe is a positive character - he wants to have a diary to communicate, transmit and leave something of his life on the island. Robinson is the hero of the novel, he is very realistic and embodies the value of the self-made man, that is somebody who is able to create his own fortune by relying only on his abilities and common sense.


The first- person narration resembling a private diary, adds a realistic effect.

Defoe's novel is full of detailed descriptions. His realistic style of narration gives his fictional material the illusion of authenticity. Coetzee instead uses a different approach according to the postmodernism - he puts at the centre of attention the reader mind, and his capacity to understand- without any conditioning.


The author use at the same time a fictive technique to represent the reality and an allegorical use of language to permit a multiple interpretation (multiplicity of layer - multilayer)

Coetzee, through Susan's point of view, desires to give voice to marginal people (to Friday, to women) and uses Friday's silence to represent the exclusion of black perspectives from colonial history.

Friday has not voice because his personality is filtered, never direct.


The novel begins describing the protagonist's shipwreck. The description uses a visual method that will be considered also cinematographic: the event is narrated in a way so exiting to permit the reader to see the scene as if he would watch a film. The author is able to provide lively scene's representation, and he avoids to much details. Coetzee is able to identify himself in the protagonist considering emotions and sufferings ("I drank, and he broughtmore. It was the best water I ever had.")


Foe's structure

* Susan's memoir

* a series of letters addressed to Foe

* an account of Susan's relationship with Foe

* a sequence spoken by an unnamed narrator who revises the story as we know it and seems to have a tone of renunciation